Including fish in your diet may help prevent a form of vascular (blood vessel) disease that can lead to cognitive decline and dementia, according to a new study published in the journal Neurology.
Fish — especially fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and herring or sardines — has long been seen as a good source of protein and beneficial fats that may carry unique health properties. The Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fish as a protein source, has been linked to a range of improved health outcomes — including some that may particularly benefit people with diabetes, like reduced liver fat and improved metabolic health. Eating fatty fish may reduce the risk for retinopathy (eye disease) in people with diabetes, and recent research suggests that a higher fish intake may help prevent type 1 diabetes in adults at high risk for the condition.
For the latest study, researchers were interested in looking at how fish intake was related to the risk for vascular disease — harmful changes to blood vessels — in and around the brain in older adults. Previous research has shown that certain vascular changes are a key factor in cognitive decline and dementia. The study participants were 1,623 adults ages 65 and older, with an average age of 72.3 years, and 63% of them were women. None of them had a prior history of dementia, heart disease, or stroke. Fish intake was measured using a detailed food frequency questionnaire.
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Higher fish intake linked to reduced vascular disease in the brain
Overall, the researchers found that a higher intake of fish was linked to a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease. When they looked at specific indicators of vascular disease in and around the brain — such as brain lesions and cavities, as shown by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — the researchers found that vascular disease was less common in people under age 75 who ate fish regularly. While nearly a third of participants under age 75 who ate less than one serving of fish each week showed signs of vascular disease, this was the case for only 23% of those who ate fish three times each week and 18% of those who ate fish four times each week, as noted in a HealthDay article on the study.
For participants ages 65 to 69, the effect of consuming two to three servings of fish each week was particularly strong — reducing the risk for vascular disease by about the same amount that having high blood pressure increased this risk. The researchers speculated that the benefits of fish intake may be stronger in people under age 75 because the healthy fats in fish could help prevent early changes that lead to vascular disease and dementia, which tend to happen in younger people. In older people, on the other hand, changes to blood vessels may already be under way, so eating fish has less of a protective effect.
Regardless of how old you are, these results suggest that there may be cardiovascular benefits — potentially much larger ones if you’re younger — from eating fish a few times each week. More research is needed to look at how fish intake is related to cardiovascular risk in younger adults, or whether fish intake over a longer period of time is linked to greater benefits.
Want to learn more about maintaining cognitive health with diabetes? Read “Nine Tips to Keep Your Memory With Diabetes,” “Staying Sharp: Seven Ways to Keep Your Brain Healthy With Diabetes,” “Keeping Your Brain Strong With Diabetes” and “Memory Fitness: How to Get It, How to Keep It.”